Prologue

 

JUN TAI WASN’T a little kid anymore. He was almost five whole years old, but it was okay if he still played with his favorite stuffed animals. “Do you take this bunny as your husband?”

Sitting on the hardwood floor in the bedroom he shared with his sister, all his stuffed toys and each one of his sister’s bears were in two lines witnessing the event.

Ye Ye came into the room and gave him a warm smile. His grandfather took care of him while his parents and grandmother worked.

“Who is that?” Ye Ye asked as he sat on the floor, touching the bunny whose left eye hung lower than his right.

“Me.” Jun Tai wasn’t able to give his full attention to his Ye Ye because he was midway through his rabbit and bear wedding ceremony. The seriousness of the situation seemed lost on his Ye Ye, but Jun Tai loved him anyway.

“Who is that?” Ye Ye pointed to the smaller bear with button replacement eyes.

“That’s Jin.” I laughed. “Who else would it be, Ye Ye?”

Ye Ye was quiet.

Jun Tai peeked at his Ye Ye through the hair that had fallen in his eyes and grinned, hoping he’d be pleased.

Ye Ye frowned and appeared confused. “Jin? Isn’t he the new boy in school?”

Happy that Ye Ye remembered his best friend, Jun Tai said, “Yes. He has hair like golden flowers. Jin’s nice. He gave me sips out of his juice box at break time. I gave him two of my cookies. Someday I’m going to marry him.”

Ye Ye cackled like the chickens out back. Why was Ye Ye laughing? He hadn’t told a funny joke. “Boys don’t marry boys, silly. You’ll find a good Chinese girl and marry her.”

How could Ye Ye say such a thing? Ew! Jun Tai didn’t want to marry a stinky old girl! He was marrying Jin. “No!” He squeezed his bunny and bear hard, wanting somehow to make Ye Ye stop saying things like that.

“Boys don’t marry boys.” Ye Ye spoke slowly, like Jun Tai was two fifty. His mama said never to think bad things because it would make them come out of his mouth. He shouldn’t think of being called a two fifty because that’s a person who isn’t fully developed in his mother and is born after only two hundred and fifty days. The kids at school said being born too early makes you stupid.

Well, he wasn’t stupid. “I don’t care. I’ll marry Jin.”

“You can’t marry Jin. He can be your friend, but boys don’t marry other boys. You need to have a son to take care of your family,” Ye Ye said firmly.

“I wanna marry Jin!” Standing tall, he stomped his foot. “I will!”

Ye Ye frowned. “He’s a boy. His father isn’t Chinese. He’s from Germany. You’ll marry a nice Chinese girl.”

What’s Germ-namie? “I don’t care! I’m going to marry him, and we’ll live in a great big house.”

“You’ll see. Jin and you will find Chinese girls to marry.” He smiled. “But you can always be friends.” Ye Ye hugged him to stop the pouting fit.

It didn’t work. Jun Tai opened his mouth to say more, but Ye Ye put a finger to his lips.

“No more of this bad talk. Be a good boy.”

 

 

YINTANG, JUN TAI’S hometown, was a snorefest. Hanging out at his best friend’s house was the only thing that allowed Jun Tai to keep his sanity, until one day Jin blurted out nonsense about a girl in their class.

Hurt and anger slashed through Jun Tai. “What do you mean, you think you like her?”

“I don’t know. I guess I like her or something.” Jin shrugged.

Swallowing hard, he asked, “Why?” How could he like her? Most of the other fourteen-year-old guys in their class had crushes on girls, so it was normal. But why did he like her? Why didn’t he like—

“She’s cute, I suppose.” Jin made it sound like a question, then asked, “What’s the matter with you? Do you need a tissue?”

“No! Nothing’s wrong with me. I’ve got to go.” Jun Tai’s heart had been kicked out of his chest.

Jin liked someone… else.

The whole world collapsed. He was relieved no one was home. He didn’t have it in him to pretend nothing was wrong.

Grabbing his drumsticks, he started practicing. He didn’t have drums, but he would someday. Or at least, he hoped he would. For now, he hit the table in front of him, thumping out a beat until the pain eased.

The girl Jin liked wasn’t ugly, but she looked like a boy. If Jin liked her, did that mean he was going to kiss her? Probably.

Rapping out a faster beat, he tried to outrun his thoughts.

 

 

JUN TAI WONG walked home from working at the music store. The job didn’t pay much, but he and Jin got free music lessons. He was flying high from playing the drums when Bi Yu, the girl who lived next door, caught him in the alleyway between their houses.

She wasn’t terrible, and was kind of pretty. Though she continued to ramble about her cousin’s cousin’s best friend’s opinion on clothes shopping. “Are you listening to me? I can’t believe she said the best blouses are at YiWa. When that’s clearly not the case.”

He didn’t want to be rude, but Jun Tai didn’t care which shop in town had the best clothing. Wanting her to stop talking, he kissed her on the mouth.

He was fifteen and had never kissed anyone other than his family, but he pushed his lips right onto hers.

Maybe he wanted to feel a kiss. Or maybe it would help him figure out why Jin kissed so many different girls.

Jun Tai had latched on to her shoulders, but Bi Yu didn’t try to get away. She kissed him back… hard.

“Hey!” her grandmother yelled. She must’ve been spying out the window.

Just his luck.

He took off down the alley without a backward glance and avoided going home until dinnertime.

Bi Yu’s grandmother must have had a “discussion” with his mother, because at dinner his father said, “No one is mad at you, Jun Tai. But do not display such affections in public again.”

“Public? I was behind the house.” Somehow it was an important point.

His father chuckled as if he were proud. At his mother’s foul expression, his father became serious. “We are pleased you like Bi Yu. But restrain yourself. Her family won’t let her marry until you’ve enough saved.”

“Marry her?” What? Why would he marry her? He didn’t want to marry her. He hadn’t really even wanted to kiss her.

“Shhh, it’s okay. We understand. You’ll finish high school. We’ve saved enough for you to graduate.” His father beamed with pride at affording his son such a privilege. “Jun Tai, you’ll be the first and possibly only one in our family to graduate high school.”

“What about Jinjing?” Paying for Jun Tai to complete his education meant his sister wouldn’t finish school. She deserved the opportunity too; she studied hard and was smart. She’d do well in business.

His father waved off the concern. “She’s a girl. Jinjing’ll work in the big department store on Walking Street. She’s pretty enough to marry.”

Under his father’s intense stare, Jun Tai squirmed in his seat.

“You’ll be the man who moves this family up in status. By marrying Bi Yu, you not only preserve our property lines but also increase them. We can attach a covered courtyard between the two homes. With high school, you’ll be able to get a decent job, so study hard.”

His father’s decree set his path in stone based on one kiss. Jun Tai’s agenda was to finish high school, get a good job, and save enough money to marry Bi Yu. His family’s success rested on his fifteen-year-old shoulders.

There was nothing more to be said. His family counted on him to fulfill the destiny chosen for him. His duty as a good son depended on staying on the course set out before him.

 

 

TAKING THE steps two at a time, Jun Tai sighed in relief that Jin’s mother was at work or maybe at the doctor’s again. She always wanted to make polite small talk and asked embarrassing questions about school. Most people of his parents’ generation didn’t get to finish high school, so they all seemed curious about the instruction. Not many high school seniors lived in town; his mother told him he should feel special, but it made him feel weird.

Without the awkward delay, he dashed to the top of the stairs. Jin was lucky; he didn’t have any siblings who shared his bedroom. It was small, but it was all his.

Sauntering in without knocking, he said, “C’mon, Jin. The music store got in a new set of drums. I want to try them out.”

Jin jumped off the bed. The older guy lounging sat straighter and glared as he crossed his leg over his knee.

Did he interrupt something?

Jun Tai had never seen this guy, who appeared to be in his midtwenties. “Who’s he?”

Jin’s face reddened. Hopefully he wasn’t catching a cold. “Um, just ah… a friend.”

Rolling his eyes, he put his hands on his hips. Was Jin thirteen o’clock? Of course he was a friend. Who else would be in Jin’s bedroom? “I thought I knew all your friends.”

The man eyed him and growled, “I’m Ming. I’ve been speaking to Jin about working for me.”

Well, Jin did need work. His mother couldn’t afford to send him to high school, and she kept getting sicker. Jin worried and didn’t want her to continue to work. “Doing what?”

“Apprenticing as a massage therapist.” The guy stood and adjusted his pants as he studied Jun Tai. He assessed him like he was buying a scooter. “You want to be a therapist too?”

His voice sounded funny.

Before Jun Tai could open his mouth, Jin shouted, “No!” He cleared his throat. “He’s finishing school.”

The guy smirked at Jin.

Jun Tai disliked this Ming.

“Stop by the shop. We need to finish… discussing the job.” The guy ambled out of Jin’s room.

Jin frowned.

Flopping onto the bed, Jun Tai tapped out a beat on his knees. “Well, that’s great news. You’ll have a job. Massage therapists work in air-con all summer.”

“Yeah.” Jin turned away to stare out his small window.

 

 

JUN TAI WAS almost nineteen years old, and he had a “girlfriend,” so he couldn’t hold a grudge against Jin for dating. As nauseous as that concept made Jun Tai, Jin would have to get married at some point too. They still worked together in the same tiny music shop downtown. Jun Tai rushed over to the shop after his shift at the factory, guessing that Jin must have gotten off early from his shift at the spa. Maybe not enough VIP clients?

Mr. Lu and his wife owned the music shop. Their only son died before Jun Tai and Jin had been born. The couple worked long after they wished to retire because they had no one to take care of them. Without a son….

In exchange for helping around the shop, Jun Tai and Jin got a little spending money and, more importantly, music lessons. Mr. Lu taught them to play and told them they had potential, but they lived in Yintang. There was no possibility of ever doing anything with their music, but Jun Tai enjoyed escaping into the sound.

That afternoon, Jin played his guitar, and Jun Tai pounded out a beat on the drums.

“One more time,” the old man demanded. He cued the other instruments to accompany them electronically. Their playing drew a small crowd of onlookers, and some of the parents even enrolled their kids for music lessons.

“Okay, this time, Jin, less treble. And, Styx, pick up the pace.” The owner never remembered Jun Tai’s name and had started calling him Drumsticks. Realizing Jun Tai hated the dumb nickname, Jin had shortened it and changed the spelling to Styx.

The old guy couldn’t afford to run the air-con, which meant his shop turned into an oven each summer. The air tasted hot and muggy, but when they played, Jun Tai became Styx, and he never noticed anything except Jin, the music, and his drums.

 

 

THAT NIGHT on the way home, dripping with sweat, they decided to stop at the lake. At dusk, the man-made lake was deserted.

“Last one in does inventory.” Jin’s clothing littered the wooden boardwalk.

Jun Tai stripped and battled the temptation to gape at his best friend, sighing with relief at the splash. Jin dove into the water and was out of sight. Saving himself from the embarrassment of being seen with an erection, Jun Tai launched into the water, hoping Jin wouldn’t notice his arousal.

Cypress trees and chrysanthemums surrounded the lake, allowing a sense of privacy. Hearty rosebushes with their red, peach, and yellow flowers were in full bloom, scenting the air with their fragrance. Twilight in the lake was a secret world, gently lit by the neon signs reflecting in the water. Pedestrians on the park’s walkway wouldn’t see them. Even the songs the crickets sang were muted.

Jin swam to Jun Tai. “You’re shivering. Are you cold?” His quiet voice thundered in the stillness of the night.

How could Jun Tai say Jin was the most beautiful and important thing in his world? He couldn’t, so he sank under the water. When his lungs hurt from lack of oxygen, he burst into the air.

Where was Jin? He spun around and around until he caught sight of a few bubbles, which gave away Jin’s location.

Jin grabbed him around the waist and wrestled him under the water. He wrapped Jun Tai in a tight hold as he twirled them in some strange underwater dance. Just when Jun Tai had decided Jin’s hug was better than air, they broke the water’s surface.

Jin’s arms didn’t drop away. He kept Jun Tai close within the circle of his embrace and gazed into Jun Tai’s eyes….

Was Jin waiting for him to do something?

His heart raced, and despite the cool water, Jun Tai’s cock grew rock-hard. Did Jin feel Jun Tai’s firmness pressed against his leg?

Jun Tai tried to swim away, but Jin didn’t release him. “Tell me, does Bi Yu let you… do things?”

“Argh! What? No! I mean, I’m not going to say.” It was none of Jin’s damned business what he did or didn’t do with Bi Yu.

Though the idea of being intimate with her made him…. He tried not to dwell on the future physical relationship he was expected to have with her.

“Do you hold her like this, Styx?” Jin’s voice dropped as he pulled Jun Tai closer into a lover’s embrace. His fingers combed through Jun Tai’s hair tenderly.

Jun Tai’s heart coiled with need and cruel hope. He craved Jin’s touch but hated that it could only ever be a tease. “Get off me!” He had to stop this, so he struggled, but Jin didn’t release him.

“Do you kiss her neck?” Jin moistened his lips and trailed them down Jun Tai’s throat.

Stop! Stilling before he tilted his head to give better access, Jun Tai couldn’t help the tiny whimper.

Jin’s soft lips caressed his neck and drove him mad. Jun Tai tried to fight it, but his body arched, and he yearned for more kisses. His cock didn’t understand that Jin only pretended to make a point.

Jun Tai’s heart hammered away quicker than any blast beat he could play. His love threatened to burst through and make stupid things fall from his mouth.

If he didn’t make Jin stop, he would come, right there in the cold, dirty lake. He’d be humiliated. He was going to shoot off in his best friend’s arms.

Biǎozi!” Jun Tai tried to laugh as he called out the insult. Bitter disappointment rushed through him when Jin allowed Jun Tai to shove him away. Being released tore at his heart. He shouldn’t long to be held by Jin.

“I’m not a bad guy,” Jin muttered.

The neon light played tricks with the shadows, because Jin appeared hurt. He turned and did a shallow dive. They swam a little longer, but silent tension hung between them like an insurmountable wall.

 

 

JIN’S MOTHER died. He had gotten his massage therapist certification, and now he wanted to escape Yintang. He and Jun Tai kept having the same conversation for weeks.

“Come with me to Suzhou, Styx. The big boss wants me in his new spa. I contacted my mother’s brother, and he wants us to live in his apartment,” Jin tempted him again.

Suzhou was a small town by Chinese standards, with a little over ten million people. It was a growing city west of Shanghai, just twenty minutes by the train. Jun Tai longed to go, but it wasn’t for the shiny newness of Suzhou. Moving there would be a way to be with Jin.

No one did anything without getting something for themselves. He tried to be practical and find the catch. “Why doesn’t your uncle rent out the apartment?”

“He wants me closer to him, and he can’t trust a renter to take care of the place like we would.” True, renters would be careless. “He told me sometimes renting costs more in terms of repairs than leaving it vacant.”

On the edge of the lake, Jin practiced qigong mixed with a bit of yoga to make his own style of exercise. He’d been doing it for a few years, and the training toned his body.

Not that Jun Tai noticed. He tried to distance himself from the inappropriate feelings seeing Jin in various positions evoked, so he tapped a pair of chopsticks on the bench, trying not to stare.

A question had buzzed around his head since he’d heard the rumors about what massage therapists did with VIP clients. The words tumbled from his lips. “Is it true?”

“What?” Jin twisted into another impossible pose. His legs stretched out on either side of him, and he leaned forward.

Pulling his gaze from Jin’s body, Jun Tai clarified. “What people say happens in the VIP room. Is it true?”

“What do…?” Jin glanced over at him and then sighed. He shifted and bent over to reach his hands far between his legs on the lake’s boardwalk. “Yeah.”

The affirmation made Jun Tai’s stomach drop with a whole new level of sadness. Anger erupted, failing to shove out the hurt and betrayal. “How could you do that?”

“It’s just another muscle. I rub it if it’s… tense.” Jin shrugged.

Had he convinced himself what he did in the name of work was no big deal? Jun Tai tried to erase the image of Jin stroking off some guy. Pretending it didn’t matter if Jin touched girls was one thing, but if Jin wanted to touch a guy, it should be—not a stranger.

But Jin didn’t actually want to put his hands on guys; it was part of the job.

Jun Tai’s misery didn’t allow him to ignore the sight of Jin stretching one yoga position into another. The beat of his wooden sticks faltered.

“My mentor is preparing me to work with some of our special VIP clients in Suzhou.” Jin talked while he held a position that made his ass arch in Jun Tai ’s direction as he stretched his arms forward. “Some people have different needs….”

Jin released the position and turned to peek at Jun Tai through his blond hair. It sparkled in the sunshine.

Jun Tai’s breath caught. At times, Jin’s loveliness stole his breath and hurt his heart. “What special needs?”

What else did Jin do? To distract himself, he twirled the sticks and restarted a fast beat on the bench.

Jin took several deep breaths before relaxing into the warrior pose. “Sometimes, a big businessman wants to give away his control. The spa offers that type of thing to some of the clients.”

“Not wanting to be in control? Who wouldn’t want to be in control?” Jun Tai shook his head in confusion.

Jin gave him a smile that boiled him from the inside. His chopsticks hit the ground. He grabbed them and couldn’t look at Jin. “Are you a whore?”

What else did you call someone who got people off for money?

Jin didn’t seem offended. “Of course not. I don’t fuck anyone. I provide a service. It isn’t about sex.”

A big part of Jun Tai didn’t want to know, because then he’d be forced to acknowledge reality. But he couldn’t get the images out of his head. Grabbing his makeshift drumsticks, he changed the subject. “I thought your mother didn’t talk to her family.”

From the time Jin’s mother became pregnant with him, until her death last year, she had been estranged from her family. The entire clan except her brother had disowned her when Jin’s father didn’t marry her. The family had disowned her brother long before her misfortune; however, the man had remained in contact through letters. Jun Tai had no clue why Jin’s family cut his uncle Bao-zhi out of the family, and it wasn’t something he could ask. Bao-zhi couldn’t have been a bad guy; he’d always sent money and presents for Jin.

“Mother and my uncle only exchanged letters, but at the end, she gave me his address since he’d be the only family I would have.” Jin’s voice broke.

“I’m your family,” Jun Tai said without thinking, but he felt the truth of that deep down in his soul. He couldn’t be everything he wanted to be to Jin, but he would claim Jin as family.

“I know.” Jin bent into another position and held the stance. “Styx, please come to Suzhou with me. Please. You aren’t making a lot in the factory. At this rate, you’ll be eighty before you have enough for Bi Yu’s family to let you marry.”

Maybe not being able to marry was the point? Jun Tai’s hands flew, rapping out a fast beat. He couldn’t outrun his troubled mind, but it didn’t stop him from trying.

He dreaded the day he’d have to marry her. Bi Yu wasn’t a bad choice, but he didn’t desire a wife. Judging by the time he’d spent with her, it seemed she didn’t wish for him to be her husband either. But their families wanted the union, so what could they do?

Once again that deep conviction that something was wrong with him, something no one would ever understand, crawled through him. How could anyone understand? He didn’t want what everyone else wanted. He turned away from Jin.

“Please come to Suzhou with me, Styx. The big boss said he’d have a job for you. You’d be like a manager or something of the spa.” When Jun Tai remained silent, Jin continued, “We’d be living rent-free in my uncle’s investment property. The apartment is right on the lake in the heart of Suzhou’s Industrial Park. Because of the new government regulations, he can’t sell the place for three more years. All we’d have to do is keep the apartment clean. But utilities and everything would be included.”

Shǐ dàn! Jin would go with or without him. Nothing bound Jin to their hometown. He was free of family responsibilities.

Jun Tai didn’t want to be left behind… not yet.

Jin emerged from his pose and shifted into another. He grabbed his ankle and extended his foot above his head.

As always, it was impossible to refuse Jin anything.

Jun Tai tried not to notice what the stretching did to Jin’s thin white pants. He twisted around on the bench to hide his erection as he tucked the chopsticks into his back pocket.

“My uncle has a friend who might know some guys who are searching for band members.” Jin unnecessarily sweetened the tea.

Jun Tai’s dreams of being a drummer had died the day his mother snapped his drumsticks in half and told him to stop being foolish. Even though their music teacher thought Jin and Jun Tai had great potential, no one else seemed to believe that, including him.

 

 

TWO WEEKS later, Jun Tai accompanied Bi Yu to the wet market. The concrete structure in the middle of town contained rows of produce fresh off the farm, butchers with meats hanging on hooks, and rows of murky aquariums holding various offering from the sea.

Accompanying her to the wet market was the closest they’d ever come to a date. Every few days, he escorted her and carried her family’s meat and vegetables back to their house. He and Bi Yu didn’t talk much on these errands, which was okay, but Jun Tai wished she’d listen to him when he spoke.

Today she twirled her hair as Jun Tai tried to tell her he needed to leave. Her eyes kept drifting to the farmer’s son packing her mother’s order.

She treated Jun Tai more like a pack animal than a boyfriend. But he wished she would pay attention so he could tell her. “Did you hear me? I’ve decided to go to Suzhou.”

Bi Yu nodded and flipped her long hair like a movie star, but she didn’t spare him a glance. Her gaze seemed glued to Cong’s shirtless body as he selected the best produce for her.

“Um, how long will you be gone?” Her disinterested tone spoke volumes.

Cong’s head snapped up as if waiting for Jun Tai’s answer.

Jun Tai gave an apologetic shrug. “I don’t know. I guess three to five years.”

That was the average time most people escaped to a city before being forced into beneficial marriages. He hoped his parents would allow him that much freedom.

“Oh, is that all?” She sounded dismayed.

Jun Tai frowned. “Um, yeah. Though I’ll probably come home when I can for the Spring Festival.”

“Oh, you don’t have to come back to visit me.” Bi Yu insisted as she made puppy eyes at Cong.

Cong put extra carrots in her bag and winked.

Bi Yu batted her eyelashes at Cong. “Thank you. That’s sweet of you.”

She pushed the overflowing bag in Jun Tai’s direction. The sack smacked him in the chest with a thump. Bi Yu leaned toward Cong as if she longed to be closer. Her voice turned husky. “Cong, give my best to your parents.”

“Of course, Bi Yu, and extend my wishes of health to your family.” He frowned at the need to acknowledge the fact Jun Tai stood there. “I hope you have a prosperous trip, Jun Tai.”

Jun Tai gave him a cordial nod. “Hey, I hope you’ll keep Bi Yu company while I’m gone.”

Cong’s eyes widened. Bi Yu coughed and choked.

He glanced between them. “What? You shouldn’t sit home alone.”

Neither said a word.